Several of the IBEW's highest legislative priorities were signed into law Dec. 20.
the so-called Cadillac Tax on union healthcare plans has been at the top of the
IBEW legislative agenda for nearly a decade, but never made it past Congress.
But, with a Democratic majority in
the House and $1.4 trillion spending package that needed to pass before
Christmas as leverage, a coalition of labor unions that included the IBEW were
able to push the repeal over the line, said Political and Legislative
Department Director Austin Keyser. The bill also included a rescue for the Mine
Workers' pension plan, a failing fund that put pressure on the entire
multiemployer pension system, and a raise for federal workers including tens of
thousands of IBEW members.
|The IBEW has been fighting with the United Mineworkers for a pension rescue for nearly a decade, including at this 2016 rally. Rescuing the Mineworkers’ Fund doesn’t solve the pension crisis but it does put one of the most critically endangered programs on safe ground.
"What changed? What changed is
[Republican incumbent Kentucky Governor Matt] Bevin lost. The day after that
election [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell signed on to save the
Mineworkers' fund," Keyser said. "McConnell is a politician. He
looked at Scott Walker and looked at Bevin and all the others we've sent
packing and he reached the reasonable conclusion that working people aren't
sitting back and taking it anymore. If he continued to stand against
common-sense solutions for working families, he would have been joining those
others in involuntary retirement."
The House passed the 2019 Omnibus
Spending Bill — which included the two provisions — Dec. 19 and the Senate
passed and sent it to the White House before the previous spending bill expired
on Dec. 21.
As originally written, the Cadillac
Tax would have punished union-negotiated health plans with close to a 40%
surcharge. The impact would have been devastating and Congress repeatedly
delayed implementation under IBEW pressure.
But just the threat of the tax was
wreaking havoc at the bargaining table for much of the last decade.
"We've been negotiating
three-year deals and Congress kept delaying the tax for two years. We had to
plan as if it would be a reality in year three," Keyser said. "We've
been giving away hard-won benefits only to see them delay for another two years,
which is all well and good, but we're still worse off for no reason."
There had been bipartisan support
for repealing the Cadillac Tax but Republican leadership only supported it as
part of larger bills to repeal the entire Affordable Care Act. The decade-long
effort to repeal the ACA has finally lost steam, and the repeal was one of
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's first priorities when the Democrats took over in
2019, Keyser said.
The Mine Workers' Pension rescue
was also released from the ice jam on Capitol Hill, mere months before the fund
could have fallen into default.
The Bipartisan American Miners Act
rescues the near-insolvent pension by using money from the 40-year-old
Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund, which cleans up the ecological damage
left behind when mining companies go out of business.
"It's like a Superfund program
for mines," Keyser said.
The program is funded by a per-ton
fee on coal mining and an assessment in bankruptcy court when mining companies
go out of business, which nearly all have.
"The elegance of this solution
is that the fund is in surplus, so we can rescue the pension without a single
additional dollar of federal money," Keyser said.
Keyser said the credit goes to West
Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and Senate Minority Leader
"They understood it isn't
enough to clean up the environmental damage left when these companies abandoned
their communities. We have to clean up the personal damage when those companies
abandoned their workers," he said.
Rescuing the Mine Workers' pension
fund also relieves some of the pressure on the Pension Benefit Guaranty
Corporation, the federal insurance program for multi-employer pension funds. In
recent years, Republican lawmakers have used the default threat from orphaned
pension plans like the Mine Workers' fund as an excuse to raise taxes and fees
on healthy pensions plans like those run by the IBEW.
"This doesn't solve every
problem. The Teamsters' Central States fund is much larger and still has to be
solved, but this was the immediate emergency," Keyser said.
In other welcome news, the bill
includes a 3.1% pay raise for civilian federal employees, though it is too soon
to be certain that this would extend to all of the tens of thousands of federal
IBEW workers and contractors. President Trump initially offered no raise, then
2.6% before finally acceding to a 3.1% bump.
"We say it all the time: If
you're not at the table, you're on the menu. Labor and friends of labor got
back to the table after the 2018 election. This is what happens when you
win," Keyser said.